The Real Soap Opera Behind Daytime TV's New Judge

Before there was Sarah Palin, there was Jeanine Pirro, another energetic, good-looking brunette eager to throw conservative punches at liberal Democrats. Pirro, the hard-charging former District Attorney of Westchester County, originally wanted to give Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the 2006 senatorial race. That plan fizzled at her initial press conference when Pirro got lost reading her speech.

She took things down a notch and ran for state attorney general, a safer bet for a successful prosecutor. That race came unhinged amid news that the feds were probing Pirro's use of former city police commissioner Bernie Kerik to bug her philandering husband.

Kerik wound up indicted, charges he's still fighting. Pirro took her act to TV. Judge Jeanine Pirro—in which Pirro plays a judge handling small-time cases with high scandal content—launched last week across the country. The kick-off episode included a lesbian who fleeced an older lovestruck man ("You're a gold-digger!" Pirro shouted from the bench), and a hulking 14-year-old who threw bleach at a neighbor. Pirro had the cops called on the teenager after she was told that he was outside the "courtroom" making threats. "I'll be a witness against him," she vowed, even though she hadn't witnessed a thing.

Not that it matters. The motto for Pirro's show is "Justice that makes sense." The slogan aims to suggest that the faux Judge Pirro delivers no-nonsense justice, not that exasperating stuff that plays out in real-life courtrooms.

Yet even as a prosecutor, the rap on Pirro was that she played too much for the cameras and by her own rules. And while the ex-D.A. has been working in TV studios, real judges have been poring over some of her biggest cases. Two major convictions have been overturned after judges found that her office suppressed key evidence for the defense. Another judge rapped her office for not even looking at evidence that ultimately freed an innocent man.

Jeffrey Deskovic, 34, was part of a protest rally last week outside the midtown offices of Pirro's TV producers. Deskovic spent 16 years in prison for rape/murder even though DNA evidence indicated that he wasn't the killer. Pirro wasn't D.A. when he was convicted, but Deskovic said she ignored his pleas to review evidence that later exonerated him after Pirro's successor, Janet DiFiore, examined the case.

Protestors also cited ex-cop Richard DiGuglielmo, who was convicted by Pirro in the racially charged shooting of a black man who was threatening DiGuglielmo's father with a baseball bat. This month, a judge ruled that the D.A. had charged the defendant with the wrong crime and also withheld records suggesting that detectives had browbeaten a witness into changing his story.

"This newest Judge Judy doesn't warrant robes," civil-rights attorney Jonathan Lovett told the rally, "and she doesn't warrant the name 'judge.' "

The toughest knocks on Pirro's performance have come from the federal courts, where a judge last year freed a mob-linked murder defendant, saying that his October 2000 conviction was tainted by "egregious" misconduct by Pirro's office.

It's no easy task making Anthony DiSimone look like a victim. Back in 1994, when he and his pals were involved in a wild melee outside a Yonkers bar in which a 21-year-old named Louis Balancio was stabbed to death, DiSimone was a leader of a tough Yonkers gang called the Tanglewood Boys. His dad is an alleged captain in the Lucchese crime family. A day after the killing, one of his dad's pals was spotted tossing bloody clothes into a dumpster, and DiSimone took off for parts unknown, not to resurface until 1999. Still, several judges who have examined Pirro's handling of DiSimone's prosecution have said he got a raw deal on several fronts.

Last year, the late U.S. District Court Judge Charles Brieant ordered DiSimone released from the 25-to-life prison term that Pirro had hailed as "the culmination" of a long "fight for justice." Brieant said that prosecutors had used the same faulty legal weapon against DiSimone that they'd used in the DiGuglielmo case: charging him with both intentional murder and "depraved indifference." The jury failed to convict DiSimone of intentionally killing Balancio, but found him guilty of the lesser charge. Courts have since ruled that the two charges can't be brought in the same case, since there's nothing indifferent about deliberate murder.

The bigger issue for Brieant and a federal appeals panel that agreed with him was that Pirro's office withheld crucial material from DiSimone's lawyers. For instance, it wasn't until the end of the month-long trial that prosecutors produced a witness's signed affidavit alleging that he'd heard a member of a rival gang of Albanians confess to taking part in the stabbing.

DiFiore, Pirro's successor, later had her office sort through 52 boxes of evidence from the six-year-long probe. Up popped several hundred pages that should have gone to the defense, including records showing that investigators had long focused on the Albanian, who also became a fugitive after the stabbing death.

The D.A.'s office also belatedly turned over grand-jury testimony from its initial indictment against another Tanglewood Boy, Darin Mazzarella, a close DiSimone pal who was originally charged with the murder. Included was the testimony of a rival gang member, Sean Carroll, who testified that he saw Mazzarella holding the victim's arm while someone he couldn't identify stabbed him.

"Darin was holding Louis," Carroll testified. "I see Louis being stabbed, and his body jerks up."

That story never surfaced at the trial, however. Once Mazzarella agreed to flip and testify against DiSimone, he and his brother Nicholas became the prosecution's star witnesses. Without the earlier records, DiSimone's lawyers were hamstrung.

"It's like trying the case with one hand tied behind your back," said George Santangelo, who represented DiSimone at the trial.

But the most startling piece of missing evidence in the DiSimone case wasn't even in the 52 boxes of evidence. DiFiore's office said that while looking for records for a separate investigation, it discovered that Pirro had secretly tape-recorded conversations as D.A.—and then asked investigators to destroy them. Among the tapes that surfaced was one from December 18, 1997—the day before Pirro announced her indictment of DiSimone.

A transcript shows Pirro talking to a top federal prosecutor, Mark Pomerantz, who stunned the D.A. by saying that the feds had just interviewed a new informant who said that Darin Mazzarella had been involved in the Balancio homicide.

"Oh, God," said Pirro.

Pomerantz said the feds weren't certain the information was believable, but he cautioned the D.A. to go slow. The informant's story, he said, was that "a year and a half ago, he had a conversation with Darin Mazzarella in which Darin admitted holding down Balancio while Nick stabbed him."

Pomerantz, now in private practice, didn't respond to messages, and Pirro declined to discuss the fall-out from her old case. Her attorney, William Aronwald, said that Pirro was never told anything further to make her believe she should hold off on charging DiSimone. He said Pirro "absolutely" denies destroying any tapes and noted that none of the recent judicial rulings have cited Pirro by name for withholding evidence. "There is no indication that there was any policy in the office to withhold evidence," he said.

DiSimone is currently fighting efforts by DiFiore to retry him for the murder. His current attorney, Murray Richman, has filed a motion citing the "mountain" of withheld evidence. "They came to a conclusion early on," says Richman, "and nothing was going to change their mind. Not evidence to the contrary—not even someone making statements of admission."

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